Teachers play an unusually prominent role in Scottish fiction. Jean Brodie is, of course, the archetype, but many other novels feature a ‘dominie’ as a central character. This is perhaps partly the natural consequence of so many Scottish writers being teachers, including Robin Jenkins. He began his teaching career in Glasgow’s east end in the 1950s, a setting not unlike that of The Changeling, which remains his best known novel after The Cone Gatherers.
The plot of The Changeling has dated somewhat, though the issues it raises have not. Charlie Forbes decides to take a promising pupil from a poor background, Tom Curdie, on holiday with his family. Nowadays they would find themselves the subject of a nationwide manhunt, but in those more trusting times we have to take Jenkins word for it that this, while unlikely, was not impossible. (Curdie’s family do appear at the end in an attempt to blackmail Forbes with hints of paedophilia, but only to demonstrate their own baseness).
Forbes is a man who wants to do good – he is, to quote the title of another of Jenkins’ novels, a would-be saint. He is not, however, presented as a heroic figure – Jenkins intends to make us aware that doing good is more complex than it might at first appear. Look at this early description of his feelings for Tom:
“With his leer of sympathy he contemplated this small, smiling, incommunicable, deprived morsel of humanity.”
‘Leer’ is Jenkins’, suggesting Forbes’ sympathy is not entirely genuine, and that he may be taking some pleasure in it; ‘morsel of humanity’ is Forbes, reducing Tom to what he represents. Forbes himself doubts his motivation:
“Without doubt, at the very back of his mind form the very beginning had been the hope that his befriending of this slum delinquent child might reach the ears of authority.”
Is it ever possible, Jenkins questions, to commit a selfless act?
Just as we can never quite pin down Forbes – well-meaning innocent or destructive meddler? – so too our impression of Tom is changeable. At one point he wants revenge on Forbes for his pity – “It would pay Forbes back.” When he breaks into the school he is careful to steal from Forbes’ classroom – if he didn’t it “would be like admitting he was grateful.” However, we also see his kindness to his younger brother. And how should we feel when on holiday he shoplifts despite having been given money to buy – is he simply reminding himself of who he is?
Predictably, like a changeling, Tom causes upset in the Forbes’ family. Often it is his good behaviour which draws unwelcome comparison with Forbes’ own children. One revealing scene occurs when they come across a rabbit suffering from myxomatosis. Forbes knows the humane action is to kill it but his attempt fails and he cannot bring himself to do more. It is Tom who has to end the rabbit’s life, only to suffer Forbes’ daughter’s critical eye:
“He did not seem at all conscience-stricken, either for killing the rabbit or just for seeing it.”
The scene demonstrates the moral complexities of the novel: Forbes wants to do right but cannot whole-heartedly (in merely hurting the rabbit he makes things worse); Tom does right but is suspect for his lack of emotional response.
Tom is an experiment in the nature / nurture debate, Forbes believes that by removing Tom from his environment he can change his nature. When his wife complains that Tom is a thief, he replies:
“Because of corrupting influences, surely. It’s those influences I hope to save him from.”
Slowly, painfully, the time away begins to change Tom – at one point he calls himself ‘Tom Forbes’ – but, as Jenkins realises , the problem with holidays is that you eventually have to go home. Is it fair to give Tom a glimpse of happiness and then take it away? The novel ends, like The Cone Gatherers, rather melodramatically, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the questions it asks are as relevant today as ever.